For the first two weeks of the season it seemed as if the San Jose Sharks could never be beaten. Starting off 5-0-0 and one of the highest scoring teams in the NHL, the Sharks were off to a red-hot start that had some feeling as if perhaps this was a team that had finally turned a corner and found some stability after years of postseason disappointing.
Nearly a month into the season, however, and all of the same questions have come flooding back.
The Sharks remain near the top of the Western Conference with 16 points in 11 games, yet are just 2-2-2 since that hot start and have now lost four games in a row after a 1-0 shootout loss to Phoenix on Saturday night. The Sharks have scored just five goals in their last five games, with the scoring woes continuing to build with each passing game.
It's pretty simple to see exactly what has led to the scoring slump and perhaps this was an issue that we should have seen coming during that hot start, as the top line for the Sharks has gone bone-dry in the scoring department and the power play has completely fallen to pieces. The two are almost certainly related.
During the 5-0-0 start to the season, the Sharks were 12-for-32 (37.5 percent) and since have scored just one goal in 25 attempts since (4 percent) as the Sharks high-scoring ways suddenly came to an end. Consequently, the high-scoring forwards for the Sharks that were driving the victories have ceased finding the back of the net, with Logan Couture, Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski combining for just four points (all goals) during the past five games.
Patrick Marleau, during that same stretch, has gone completely scoreless after starting the season with nine goals and 14 points in the first six games of the season. Most alarming for the Sharks is that this isn't a case of poor puck-luck; Marleau has just seven total shots on goal in four games after averaging 4.7 shots per game through the first seven games of the season.
It doesn't help that players such as Adam Burish, Ryan Clowe and Michal Handzus have not helped pick up the slack in the scoring department, with the three veterans combining for just one goal through 11 games.
The issue with the Sharks, as it has been all season long, is that even strength scoring is nowhere near the level it needs to be to help alleviate the number of other problems facing the Sharks this season. The Sharks have just 18 even-strength goals this season, No. 16 in the NHL, and will need to find a way to correct the issue given the ups and downs of a power play throughout the season.
"Throughout the whole year, I think our 5-on-5 production has to get better," Clowe told David Pollack before Saturday's game against Phoenix. "Our power play was so hot it kind of carried us there for a while. When your power play struggles, you're looking at that. But let's not forget we're not scoring enough 5-on-5 and it's something we've got to do better."
"You talk a lot about getting around the net. You look at most of the goals are scored and guys are at the top of the crease or batting it in. Those are the kind of goals you need, but I think our power play - that'll come. You're always going to go into droughts, but consistency 5-on-5 is what we need especially with the talent we have."
The Sharks are a team that has had to deal with questions of consistency and effort for what feels to be the last decade. San Jose has won the Pacific Division title six times since 2002 and have not finished lower than No. 2 in the division in that span; those great regular season finishes have been taken for granted, however, as the Sharks have continued to struggle to live up to lofty postseason expectations year after year -- especially after losses in the Conference Finals in 2010 and 2011.
At this point it's almost expected for the Sharks to do well during the regular season only to fall apart in the postseason, hence these hot starts seemingly get overlooked whenever San Jose is actually playing at a high level. The question for this season is whether or not this particular hot start was just a mirage, especially considering that the Sharks lead the NHL in turnovers with 137 through 11 games, far and away the most of any team in the league.
The good news is that the Sharks still have a more-than-solid defense to fall back on and Antti Niemi has led the Sharks to becoming the top defensive team in the NHL with just 1.82 goals allowed through the quarter-mile mark of the season. The Sharks desperately need their best players to continue to play at their best, however, and to do so consistently, which appears to be a tough task on a team filled with streaky scorers.
The Sharks are just 11 games into the year but with only 37 games remaining in the truncated season, there's not much time to figure things out before the inevitable postseason collapse that everyone, at this point, expects.